a Google Translate experiment with language
<cue 90s beat>
Now this is a story all about how
We can use TV theme songs to bring students ’round
To seeing Google Translate for how it really makes
Their writing and their reading, quite substantially fake
<Tip beat 90s>
Well, this is a story about how all
We will be able to use the theme song from the TV tower student
To see how the Google translation is actually
To read and write their false much more
You might notice that these “rap” lyrics (at least the first ones written by me for this post) sound familiar if in fact you rapped them as you read. Back in the day, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96) was the next-generation Cosby Show, but it was cooler than that. It had the family values, but also the rags to riches main character that so commonly causes both conflict and comedy. Add to that Will Smith (at the time part of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince)’s narrative, comedic rap style, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air hooked viewers of all backgrounds and ages. Though using excerpts from sitcoms is not foreign in language teaching situations, focusing on the theme songs and in this case, their theme song as thrown through Google Translate, is an overlooked treasure trove. For anyone unfamiliar with the original, just sit right back and he’ll tell you how he became the prince of a town called Bel-Air:
As you probably have noted to yourself already, there are various lessons that can spawn from this: characteristics of genre-specific writing, sentences structure, story-telling, etc. I’ve included a full lesson plan with handouts for teacher and student, should you want to explore these ideas further.
Where I’ll focus specifically for this post is how one group experimented with this theme song by putting the lyrics through Google Translate. They initially take the lyrics, submit them through Mandarin Chinese, and then back to English. Immediately there are noticeable differences in the language presented, which they deliver through a performance of the theme song again. What initially occurs is two-fold:
- simplification of the language with meaning loss
- completely mistranslated language
For example, the lyrics “Chillin out, maxin, relaxin all cool” becomes “Cold, apricot, relaxing all cool”. It begs the question of meaning-loss in both regards. Imagine students taking sentences they don’t understand from a text, popping them into Google Translate to their language, and resulting in a twisted interpretation.
Later for hyperbolic emphasis, the group continues to take the modified lyrics through various languages in Google Translate until the song’s meaning becomes barely recognisable. Mass oversimplification and extreme meaning loss (and hilarity!) ensue. Take a gander:
I particularly like how the lyric “We pulled up to the house about 7 or 8” turns into “fire in the house for 7, 8 years“. Confusion, students?
How can this be used with students? Several of my students very obviously use Google Translate either to translate our texts into their language or translate their writing into English, yet they often fail to see how meaning loss and completely mistranslated sentences occur (or how I could possibly know that they’ve used Google Translate). Where doing so from English to L1 may help with gist, this video experiment concretely demonstrates how even that can be misleading.
Using the video with students
I suggest taking the original lyrics, use guiding questions to gauge clear understanding of meaning and then having students paraphrase into their own words first. Then give individual lyrics from the translated version to pairs, who need to identify the new meaning, which original lyrics it may be translated from and finally how meaning differentiates between the original. This can put a stamp to students on these two pitfalls of using Google Translate.
A full lesson plan is here:
It includes procedure and materials for:
- Recognising author purpose
- Differentiating between writing genres (lyrics vs written story)
- Maintaining author meaning and intention when paraphrasing
- Recognise pitfalls of automatic translators
<cue 90s beat>
So, we’ve pulled up to the end, hopin it’s not too late
And I yell to you teachers, ‘yo Teach, contemplate’
I scoff at Google Translate, we are finally there
To show our students next time, use your own words if you dare
Nathan Hall (see comment below) took the first paragraph of this post and ran it through the translator. Brilliant idea! I decided to do so with a comment I left on Teaching English’s FB page, which talks about my students I took it from English to Japanese and then back to English. See if you can understand it:
“Because it feels like than they can do, if they do a good job of complex lighting, some of my students, tend to rely on such as translation of Google. Look at the English vocabulary strung together in a seemingly complex pattern, teacher or care about this jibberish, as it is necessary to determine strongly recommend the former, and whether or not to return it is not marked I am they , and you would have to comprehensible.Then us it. In this lesson a great Fresh Prince of Bel-Air video, will help you to get, and to kick this habit of while away from home.”
Contribution to Shelly Sanchez Terrell’s #30GoalsEdu, Goal 7: Share a lesson